Sun, 03 Sep 2000

Living in the illusion of time and memories

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): It doesn't take much to feel lousy. Once I was resting, lying down in bed feeling quite content and relaxed, when suddenly I realized that I had a stack of months-old newspapers I hadn't had a chance to read, and to which I felt too attached to throw away. I had planned to sort through the stack since last New Year's Eve when I was making my new year's resolutions.

My mind raced: "Oh, darn, there are so many things I haven't done in my life. Oh, next month will be September and I'm going to be another year older and what have I got? No husband, no kids, no money, no fame. God help me, I'm not ready to be 30 and still a nobody. No way. And soon I will be 40, then 50. I don't want to be 40 yet, for goodness sake!!

"Gee, I remember an article I read in last week's paper. It was about a young woman who was so rich, so famous, so pretty, so lucky, and madly in love. She had a beau. Look at me, I'm nothing, not even up to Lusi's (or Emma's or Santi's or Johnny's) standards; she's just earned a one-year bonus from her company. Actually I am smarter than her, she's just damn lucky, that's all, and I am not. Life's so unfair.

"Come to think of it, the bathroom is still leaking, the water dirty, nothing is ever done right in this damned country. Where does all the taxpayers' money go?

"And the maid! She didn't arrange the wardrobe again as ordered and I can't find a damn thing! And just tell me when I will find the time to paint and decorate the house. I bought the paint two years ago and it's still not done. Nothing is right in my life! Ever!"

And then I would feel really bad for the rest of the day. It all began with a single thought. One single casual, "innocent" thought. Our mind habitually, if not compulsively, races through the gamut of thoughts and our thoughts are nothing but memories. Memories of the past: things learned and perceived, registered in the brain. This advanced ability to retain memories is a blessing and a curse at the same time. We become a slave to our minds; the overenergetic cheeky monkey that will find something that is not here now to wail about. Recollection of experiences, perceptions, thoughts are old. They are illusions based on the ignorance of the illusion of time: that there are such things called the past and the future.

Memory alone assures us that there was a past. In fact, were it not for memory we would have no idea of time whatsoever. In the same way we never know the future, we know only anticipation or expectation -- which nevertheless are themselves parts of present experience. Anticipation, like memory, is a present experience.

So, the past and the future are simply the illusory products of a symbolic boundary superimposed upon the eternal now, a symbolic boundary which appears to split eternity into yesterday versus tomorrow.

Since our suffering and anxiety are based on this illusion, needless to say, they are illusions as well. And we are so deluded to believe that they are not. Even your "self" is nothing but a set of memories.

When you are asked, "Who are you?" Your answer may be, "I am Dick, I am an accountant, and an avid football supporter. I was born 42 years ago. I have one wife and three kids. I don't like red meat."

Ask Ronald Reagan -- or anyone with Alzheimer's disease -- who he is. He doesn't even remember that he was once the most powerful man on earth. He doesn't remember his children either. His "self" is no longer there.

There is only one reality, the eternal present: the time that is dying and being born at the same time, every second. Christian mystics perceptively describe it as "nunc fluens" (the passing present) and "nunc stanc" (the eternal present). The past is long gone. What remains is a present trace of old memories, and the future is not yet here; most likely it will never come, that's why it is called the future. You are reading this now, but one day this experience, this time, will be nothing save a vague memory. This timeless moment, fluid as it is, is the only time you have and it is tranquil. It is peace. And that which is timeless is eternal. Says Zen master Seppo, "If you want to know what eternity means, it is no further than this very moment. If you fail to catch it in this present moment, you will not get it, however many times you are reborn in hundreds of thousands of years."

Schrodinger says that "the present is the only thing that has no end". Wittgenstein: "Eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." And even Dante also spoke of that incredible "Moment to which all times are present".

In the words of the Christian sage de Caussade, "O all ye who thirst! Know that you have not far to seek for the fountain of living waters; it springs close to you in the present moment ... The present moment is the manifestation of the Name of God and the coming of his Kingdom." Hence, says the Muslim mystic Rumi, "the Sufi is a son of the Moment".

Now whenever I find my mind play its usual trick of finding faults in life, I cut it short, there and then, "Wait a minute there, fella. Would you just shut up?" I watch it fade away, no condemnation, no justification, no self-discussion. I watch another cloud of thought take shape, fleet and fade away; forming, fleeting and fading, knowing they are illusions.

Do I still get mad when things don't work as I wish? Sure, but then again I watch things take shape, hover, and fade away. At least I only get upset about something "tangible" now (usually a combination of the following: it's hot, I have to wait, mosquitoes abound and someone is smoking next to me), not any longer about an uncontrollable chain of self-pitying thoughts. Remember this, if thought doesn't give continuity to feeling, feeling dies very quickly.

Khrisnamurti candidly summarizes the nature of thought: "Thought is so cunning, so clever, that it distorts everything for its own convenience. Thought in its demand for pleasure brings its own bondage. Thought is the breeder of duality in all our relationships ... Thought not only breeds this duality in us, this contradiction, but it also accumulates the innumerable memories we have had of pleasure and pain, and from these memories it is reborn. So thought is the past, thought is always old ... Thought is crooked because it can invent anything and see things that are not there. It can perform the most extraordinary tricks, and therefore it cannot be depended upon ... Thought can never solve any psychological problem ... The old brain cannot solve the enormous problem of living."

The author is director of the Satori Foundation, a center for study and development of human excellence through mind programming and meditation techniques, e-mail: